School & District Management

Sacramento Hopes to Transform High Schools

By Alan Richard — June 19, 2002 5 min read
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This summer, when Gary K. Hart teaches his first lesson here, the former California secretary of education’s presence in the classroom will underscore how profoundly Sacramento leaders want their city’s high schools to change.

Mr. Hart is starting an academy within John F. Kennedy High School that will focus on American history and literature. He will teach full time in the program—and will be a small part of the Sacramento district’s ambitious efforts to make its high schools smaller and better.

“It’s my own sort of personal version of how I think a high school should operate,” Mr. Hart said, although he adds, “I sort of view this not so much as a vehicle for reform.”

But the program is the type of creative, smaller setting Sacramento school leaders want to see more often in their system.

Although it has seen some success in the elementary grades, the 51,000-student Sacramento City Unified School District— like urban systems across the nation—is struggling with low test scores in its middle and high schools. Superintendent Jim Sweeney puts it bluntly: “We’ve got nothing in high school.”

The district hopes programs like Mr. Hart’s can change that.

Last fall, the Sacramento city schools won an $8 million grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to help the district break several large high schools into smaller learning communities. Similar grants, part of the foundations’ Schools for a New Society initiative, were awarded to six other urban districts. (“City Districts to Change ‘Obsolete’ High Schools,” Oct. 17, 2001.)

More Flexibility

The progress here, some say, would have pleased Joe Serna, the late Sacramento mayor who helped elect a new school board and is widely credited with setting the schools on the road to improvement before his death in 1999. (“Sacramento Mayor’s Legacy: Improved Schools,” Feb. 2, 2000. )

The district’s new headquarters—the Serna Center, named for the late mayor and his wife—will open later this year. Located on 47th Avenue, in a tougher part of town than the old building near the state Capitol, it is closer to more schools and symbolizes the district’s fresh start.

A key to the new start is the plan to revamp the city’s comprehensive high schools, all of which have more than 2,000 students, with some approaching 3,000. “They’re too large,” Mr. Sweeney said.

The district plans to sponsor some of the new, smaller schools as charter schools to get around requirements that the teachers’ union approve changes such as flexible schedules or extended hours, Mr. Sweeney said. Union leaders have complained, however, that the district has failed to involve teachers in important decisions and has done little to help high school teachers meet new goals.

District leaders also want to give students greater leeway in satisfying graduation requirements by allowing advanced students to graduate in less than four years. Students who need more time to finish school— up to five years—would get it. The flexibility plan, to come before the school board for approval later this year, is modeled after a similar system in Rochester, N.Y.

To help carry out its plans, the Sacramento district has placed “school improvement facilitators” in every high school. Rich Owen, the assistant superintendent for high school improvement, said each facilitator is “someone to live and breathe high school transformation.”

While observers have been impressed with test-score improvements in Sacramento’s elementary schools, similar progress in the city’s middle and high schools may be tougher, they caution.

“It’s very hard to get improvement in any schools, but that’s easier than reforming high schools,” said Gerald Hayward, who monitors education policy in Sacramento for Policy Analysis for California Education, a joint venture between Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley.

Passion for History

Mr. Hart, 58, who served for a year as Gov. Gray Davis’ first education secretary, has developed a school-within-a- school program that reflects what Sacramento educators are hoping to establish in many of the city’s high schools.

The 9th and 10th graders in the Program in America and California Exploration, or PACE, will spend two hours studying U.S. history or language arts every day.

The program will expand as the first students proceed through high school. The PACE program will be a small learning community, keeping students with the same group of teachers for at least their first two years.

It all begins this month, when Mr. Hart’s first 150 students will attend a monthlong summer session at California State University- Sacramento, where he has been teaching for the past year.

Mr. Hart downplays the program, but he spent a great deal of time setting it up. He personally interviewed 250 student applicants. For the summer program, he worked the telephones, making sure students could catch a school bus or public transportation home, if necessary. Nearly 80 percent of Sacramento’s students are members of minority groups, and many are Hmong or Latino youngsters who have trouble with English.

With its in-depth focus on a particular subject and a setting that allows students to stay with the same group of teachers for some subjects over a two-year span, the program, Mr. Hart contends, could be established by almost any school.

He hopes it will help students find an enriching, personal, school experience—and he wants them to fall in love with American history.

“It somehow loses its magic in so many school situations,” Mr. Hart lamented.

The former education secretary isn’t new to teaching. A native of Santa Barbara, Mr. Hart has taught at the middle, high school, and college levels. He represented his hometown in the California legislature—first as an assemblyman and then as a senator—for 20 years, until 1994.

Before Gov. Davis made him education secretary in January 1999, Mr. Hart was chairman of the Senate education committee and taught part-time in community colleges and at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He’s still certified to teach high school history; he holds a master’s degree in teaching from Harvard University.

“It’s so easy to forget how hard teaching is,” he said.

He has outlined his curriculum to focus on nine topics of American history, including the Civil War, World War II, and the civil rights movement.

“Instead of being disadvantaged or behind, these so-called at-risk kids will be at an advantage,” he said of the students selected for the program. “I enjoy kids, and I’ve been a away from them too long.”

Coverage of urban education is supported in part by a grant from the George Gund Foundation.

A version of this article appeared in the June 19, 2002 edition of Education Week as Sacramento Hopes to Transform High Schools

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